The New York Times recently interviewed the man viewed as the best baguette maker in Paris, and by extension, the world. Asked about his work, Mahmoud M’seddi referred to his kitchen as his “laboratory” while telling the Times that he sees himself “as an artist, a magician.”
Readers might stop and think for a minute about the happy meaning of the chef’s assertion. So specialized is work in today’s world that what used to be seen as prosaic and rather blue collar is now scientific, and the stuff of artistry.
Better yet, readers would be wise to consider the chef’s assertion through the prism of work history. 150 years ago, few had the luxury of contemplating what they would eventually do for a living. Once able, most everyone knew exactly what the future would look like: backbreaking work six days per week on the family farm, from dawn to dusk. This was the reality for the vast majority of the world’s population, whether rich or poor. Imagine that.
Indeed, imagine what life would be like for the majority of us if the global economy were still an agriculture-based one. Think how poor and miserable most of us would be.
Interesting here is that Warren Buffett contemplated something similar in a 2015 Wall Street Journal opinion piece. The legendary investor asked readers to “imagine [if] we lived in a sports-based economy. In such a marketplace, I would be a flop. You could supply me with the world’s best instruction, and I could endlessly strive to improve my skills. But, alas, on the gridiron or basketball court I would never command even a minimum wage.”
Buffett’s counterfactual similarly speaks to our happier modern reality. Buffett was born into a world in which he had choices. He’s most intelligent when allocating capital, but if he presumed to talk the intricacies of basketball with LeBron James, or football with Tom Brady, this most brilliant of men would not look very smart at all. Buffett can fill arenas with his investment genius, but he could not even fill a room if sports were his only option. Thankfully more and more people get up feeling like Buffett, Brady and James. Work is where a growing number of people get to showcase their unique skills, and yes, intelligence.
What brought about this change in the nature of work? Why do people have endless work options today relative to a past in which they were brutally limited? The simple answer is robots.
While the creation of the food necessary for human survival once required most of humanity, primitive robots of the back hoe, fertilizer and tractor variety made it possible for exponentially more food to be grown and raised with exponentially fewer hands. One could argue that these early “robots” were the biggest job destroyers in history, but as opposed to putting the workers of the world in breadlines, they freed hundreds of millions to finally realize their previously undiscovered talents.
As a result, individuals whose intelligence had historically been suffocated on farms were able to set their minds to curing disease, to developing the air conditioner, airplane and automobile, and still others were able to become actors, artists, athletes and musicians. Such is the genius of automation. As opposed to rendering us unemployable, that which erases the work of the past makes us much more employable – and productive – precisely because it fosters individual specialization.
To understand why, we need only remember why free trade among individuals always and everywhere elevates all concerned. Not only does free trade reward us through global competition among producers to meet our needs, the division of labor with the rest of the world makes it much more likely that we will be able to do the work that is most commensurate with our talents. Simplifying what is simple, free trade is the educational equivalent of studying what we love every day while dropping the courses that we cannot stand. And when we do what we love we are much more productive, which means our earnings potential grows by leaps and bounds. Robots and other forms of automation must be considered with all of this in mind.
If the division of labor with other human beings naturally elevates us, and it does, imagine what robots will do to greatly enhance our individual productivity. Precisely because they can “work” seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and precisely because they can replace humans in more and more endeavors, we can be confident of a work future that is going to stagger us in terms of its abundance. Simply put, it is where old forms of work are most rapidly being destroyed that new and more exciting forms are most rapidly revealing themselves.
If human progress were all about “jobs,” our task would be easy. We could abolish the tractor, airplane, computer and ATM machine. If so, we would all have jobs. No doubt we would be incredibly poor, but we would all have jobs. Yet what these technological advances hopefully remind us is that technology by its very name is a happy sign that work of the menial, semi-challenging and complicated variety is being done for us so that we can focus our energies elsewhere.
Interesting about all this is that some who should know better predict in gloomy fashion that automation is set to destroy hundreds of millions of jobs in the not-too-distant future. The pessimists should be smiling, and the optimists rejoicing. If robots live up to their job-destroying promise, the future is going to be amazing.
For one, all the productivity wrought by automation points to wealth creation in the coming decades that will make our abundant present look rather austere by comparison. Crucial about all this is that the immense wealth will free up copious amounts of human and financial capital necessary to make cancer and heart disease life-shortening maladies of the past. The more robots destroy the work of the past, the more time we will have to cure the diseases that take our loved ones from us way too soon.
And then we must consider all the commercial advances and comforts that became commonplace with the automation of food production. Previously mentioned were cars, air conditioners and airplanes, among other advances that we could not live without. Can anyone reading this piece imagine life without television? Or Wi-Fi? It is hard to, and because it is we should be cheering the possibility that automation could wholly re-write our present definition of work. That is the case because we humans have not scratched the surface of our potential. Assuming mass automation of what we do, stop and think of the advances we will achieve tomorrow.
If we are freed from much of what do now, the advances of the not-too-distant future will make planes, cars, computers and air conditioning appear pedestrian by comparison. What will those advances be? And what will we do for work? If I knew I would be worth billions, but what is certain is that the more we automate the present the more talent we will be able to direct toward existing problems, other ones we never knew we had, and still more to innovations previously unimagined that we will eventually say we cannot live without. To presume otherwise, as in to presume that we will stop progressing in the face of automation, is to presume that we’ll run out of ideas. That is not serious.
What is serious is that the future will be defined by a four-day work week thanks to robots performing more and more of the work we used to do. With the four-day week, demand for entertainment will skyrocket such that a growing number of us will get to do for a living what we grew up doing for fun. We are already seeing this now given the proliferation of videogaming, video-game coaching, and shopping (yes, shopping!) as remunerative professions.
Even better is that while we will be free to work but four days per week, most of us will choose to put in more time at the office. We will because the automation that has so many so needlessly scared is what is going to cause tens of millions to fall in love with work.
Precisely because “robots” will erase so much of its drudgery, work will be about humans showcasing their unique skills and intelligence. Prosperity does not make us lazy; rather it unearths in us a herculean work ethic we never knew we had. Work becomes fun. Along these lines, watch how robots proliferate amid growing global aversion to retirement.
The main thing is that when people are doing what they love, they are able to work incredibly hard without “working.” That is the future if we embrace the very automation that is set to destroy hundreds of millions of jobs. This rapid change will not put us into breadlines as much as it will cause to race to the office every day.